McDonald’s Monopoly Game and the Prisoner’s Dilemma

One of my first blog posts on Hot Tub Crime Machine was about the similarities between the McDonald’s Monopoly game and classic Prisoner’s Dilemma. Judging by the amount of search traffic this post drives to the blog, it has consistently been one of the most popular posts, even though it’s almost a year old. So with the latest incarnation of the Monopoly game now at McDonald’s, and several new TV ads promoting it (featuring LeBron and Michelle Wie), I felt it was a good time to re-post the classic.

When I was younger I used to love the McDonald’s Monopoly game (truth be told, I also used to love McDonald’s).  It was a great added reward for doing something I already liked doing. Not to mention there was a chance you could win all sorts of great prizes.

Unfortunately I never won anything. Even when I cheated.

That’s right, I cheated. Sort of. A good friend of mine had a paper route in high school (ah, simpler times) and when the Monopoly game would start, the Sunday papers would come with a game board and 2 free game pieces. Of those two game pieces one was for free food and the other was a game piece. The idea was to get you back into the store with the free food (and, presumably a nice up-sell) and to get you into the game with the intro game piece.

If you’ve never played the game it works like this, collect all three game pieces of a single color (or 4 railroads, or 2 blue spots – Boardwalk and Park Place) and you win a prize. Of course McDonald’s prints a ton of two of the first pieces and only 1 or 2 of the third (and winning) piece. So everyone ends up with Atlantic Avenue and Ventnor Avenue and no one gets Marvin Gardens (or rather, VERY few people get Marvin Gardens).

Back to my story about cheating…My friend with the paper route, who shall remain nameless, would swipe each game board (with 2 attached pieces) as he delivered the paper. We ended up with a couple hundred boards and twice as many pieces and still didn’t win anything – except a summer of eating free McDonald’s.

The problem was that no matter how much McDonald’s we ate, the odds of Marvin Gardens (or any other winning piece) being at our store, or even in our town, were extremely low.

But even if we had gotten one of the winning pieces, we would still have to go back to McDonald’s a lot to get all three – that’s the nature of the game.

Until the internet came along. Now you can buy and sell all the Monopoly pieces you want. I looked around a lot and all I found was a lot of people selling the common pieces for next to nothing but no one selling the winning pieces.

[note: the other day I saw tons of these for sale on ebay, but now most seem to have been taken down. You can still find a few (search “mcdonalds monopoly park place”) but they must be cracking down.]

Therein lies the Prisoner’s Dilemma. If I have the winning piece I have three options:

  1. Try and buy enough McDonalds food to get the common piece I need
  2. Go online and buy the common pieces. But if someone is buying the common pieces does that mean they have the rare piece? In which case, the seller should charge them more because the piece, while low value to you, is extremely valuable to them.
  3. Sell the rare piece, at some price below the value of the price and let someone else (who already has the common piece) claim the prize.

Just like the prisoner’s dilemma, it pays to work together.

What effect does the internet have on games like this? In theory it should make it easier to win, or at least, it should increase the rate at which people win. Before the internet it might have taken all Fall to find the winning pieces, but now, assuming the Boardwalk has been found, one of the many people selling Park Places on eBay should have cashed in the million dollar prize. And yet the game goes on.

Of course, let’s not forget that the winning piece could still be attached to a large soda cup sitting in a landfill somewhere, casually discarded by someone who didn’t even bother to check it.

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About Ezra Englebardt
Account planner, digital nerd, marketing guru, tweeter, occasional blogger, cyclist, snowboarder, mountain biker, social media junkie and avid reader. CU-Boulder and Boston College alum. Frequent guest speaker in Boston-area universities.

2 Responses to McDonald’s Monopoly Game and the Prisoner’s Dilemma

  1. Pingback: McConsistency is Key. | World (and Lunar) Domination

  2. Nice post – I loved this game (and gulp, McDonalds) as a kid too. COMPLETE SIDE NOTE: When I was pretty young my pal (who will also remain nameless) worked at McDonalds and they had this loyalty program where for every value meal you bought you got a punch in your card and after 9 you got the 10th free. My buddy stole the punch and about 200 cards and we ate like shit for an entire summer just punching the cards when in the Drive-Thru line and just rotating to different McDonalds hah. SO nasty but we felt like the hamburgular for sure.

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